Friday, May 31, 2013

You Can Binge The New "Arrested Development" But That Doesn't Mean You Should

Finally, a reason to draw another breath
Like Macarthur returning to the South Pacific, like Jordan coming back to the Bulls, like Christ crawling out of his tomb, Arrested Development has returned for its triumphant victory lap, in the form of a fourth season on Netflix, seven years after the show was canceled. Everyone (or at least everyone on Twitter) gobbled up all 15 new episodes in the hours after they were released last weekend, in what appeared to be a race to a) watch it all and b) be the first to have an opinion.

The fevered anticipation of this event outgrew what one could reasonably expect for the return of a mostly great, sometimes very good, occasionally not so good TV sitcom, to the point that with each new advance clip, with each bit of news on the show's progress and format and new episode count, it seemed Netflix was going to fill the yawning chasm at the core of all of our souls.

But then the episodes were released, and the chasm remained, and even the most reverent Arrested fan was reminded that even the greatest TV comedy ever made is still just a TV show. It doesn't give your life meaning or repair your marriage or help you hide a dead body you may or may not find yourself in possession of. So began the inevitable backlash, with reviews from the lukewarm to the savage actually bringing Netflix stock down several points on the Dow.

I was a big fan of the first two seasons of Arrested Development (the third not as much) and like everyone else was glad to get more. To me, the great thing about the show was that every time I watched an episode, I came away with a new favorite character. One minute I'd be saying "George Michael is the greatest, nobody can touch him," and 22 minutes later I'd be all "Lucille is amazing, best mom character of all time," then 22 more minutes later I'd be president of the Lindsay Bluth fan club, and so on and so on.

Because the show (quite rightly) put all of its castmembers in much higher demand for other projects, and (I guess) because Netflix couldn't make a Godfather offer to lock all nine principals down to shoot at the same time, this dynamic -- a new favorite character every episode -- is turned into an actual format for the new episodes, with each focusing on an individual character's part in a much larger story, kind of like Rashomon meets Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. (Every exit is an entrance somewhere else.)

I didn't start watching the new episodes until Tuesday night, and I was only able to get through three of them before I remembered another aspect of my relationship with the show in its original run: it is so dense with jokes, moving so fast that you daren't laugh too long at any one of them for fear that you'll miss the next one, that I can't watch more than a couple of them at once before my brain gets tired and I start to kind of glaze over.

He might as well change his real name to GOB at this point
This is where I think the new episodes are suffering in the eyes of critics. In everyone's haste to mainline the whole eight hours of the fourth season into their eyeholes, the fact that the thing is even more densely plotted than it was on Fox, and thus requires a little more time to let each episode sink in (at least, it does for my small brain), may be affecting people's ability to enjoy it.

This is not to say that the new season is perfect, or even great. It's a big change in the show's format, one that I'm not sure I can evaluate even having watched the whole thing-- given the interlocking nature of the episodes and plot points and callbacks, I'll most likely have to watch it again.

But that's not really important. What's important is, is it funny? We didn't love Arrested Development for its format, or its themes, or its social commentary, or its ability to marry so many different tones into one -- we loved it because it made us laugh. So will the new episodes make us laugh?

Um... some of them?

First, the good: The actors have not forgotten how to play their characters, or how to make them funny. They are every bit as self-absorbed and oblivious as before, and every bit as facile with hilarious, quotable lines. If you were a fan of the show before, this new season won't do anything to sully your memories.

Also, there are a lot of great guest stars: Ben Stiller packs more funny into his spot as GOB's magician rival Tony Wonder than he has in his last 12 movies, Maria Bamford gets a great turn as a junkie actress named DeBrie, Roger Sterling John Slattery gets one of the best lines of the season as a "disgraced anesthesiologist," to name only a few. Kristen Wiig does an amazing job as the younger Lucille, but it's kind of ruined by the fact that most of her scenes are shared with Seth Rogen as the younger George Sr., who neither looks, sounds, or behaves at all like Jeffrey Tambor.

Kristen Wiig is terrific. And Kristen Wiig is terrific.
But it does have a few problems. One is that the interlocking plot, while not exactly complex, requires quite a lot of exposition, so Ron Howard's narration is a much bigger presence than ever before, to the point that at times it feels like you're being read a bedtime story occasionally punctuated by one of the actors saying a line. This feels like more of a problem if you're watching all the episodes in one fevered 8-hour marathon, when you're being reminded of plot details you just got a few minutes ago. However, this is another thing that becomes a joke in and of itself as the episodes go on, and the narrator's throat-clearing in the opening moments of the first episode makes more sense once you know how much he's got ahead of him.

Also, I don't know if Netflix severely curtailed the budget or what, but there are places where the actors are obviously standing in front of a green screen, with the appropriate set or scenery filled in later, like Daily Show correspondents. The sound mix is all over the place, so that sometimes all the audio shifts to one side or another, and the actors looped (overdubbed) lines are pretty obvious, so the overall product at times seems like a YouTube video.

Along the same lines, Hurvitz let slip in one of the 7,500 interviews he did over the last couple weeks that for certain scenes, the actors were shot separately at different times (because of availability issues) and then put together with digital magic later. It's cool that they were able to do that, but Hurvitz shouldn't have let that cat out of the bag because I've spent the entire time I've been watching the new episodes looking for these scenes, and it's distracting. There are other scenes where I'm half-certain that they put a wig on a body double and shot over their shoulder to create the illusion that both actors are in the same shot, the way they do with "twin brothers" George Sr. and Oscar. It's a lot harder to laugh when I'm looking for the wires.

This is as expressive as she gets in her first episode
Speaking of distracting: Lindsay's first episode, the third in the series, was hard to get through, but not because of bad writing or anything like that. I love the character of Lindsay and I think Portia Di Rossi is a vastly underrated comic actress, in the same league as Julia Louis-Dreyfus, but she seems to have had a facelift or something because her face looks like the Madame Tussaud's version of Lindsay: tight and shiny and motionless. Ms. Di Rossi is (or was) a very lovely lady, but that is not the issue -- I'd have the same issue if it were David Cross or Jeffrey Tambor with the obvious facelift.

(Actually, I'm not sure it was a facelift-- it may have been severe Botoxing coupled with dramatic weight loss, because in later episodes Lindsay's face seems to relax and get back to normal, and because there is a scene in a later episode where Lucille berates Lindsay for having so much work done. Is it possible that she got so severely Botoxed on purpose, just to make that joke work? If she did, my hat is off to her, but it's not made clear enough in the show to have been worth it -- it's just distracting.)

Anyway, some of the episodes are better than others. The George Sr. episodes are a little dull, and I was surprised how little I liked the Michael episodes. I love Lucille but her episode wasn't all that compelling, and Lindsay's wasn't so great either. I always found Tobias and GOB and Buster to be best in small doses but I can't deny that I found their episodes the funniest. The Maeby and George Michael episodes are great. In general, the season gets better as it goes along, as the plot details start to fit together and odd moments in early episodes are explained by later ones. I wasn't in love with either of the main MacGuffins-- George and Lucille's scheme to build a wall on the Mexican border, and Michael's quest to make a movie about the family-- but some of the smaller arcs, like George Michael's Fakeblock project and Tobias' Fantastic Four musical and GOB's, um, everything with GOB, were really funny and exactly the kind of thing I want from this show.

Overall I enjoyed these episodes but I have a feeling that if and when I watch them again I'll enjoy them a lot more. I'm not sure the reviews would have been much better if these episodes had been released on a traditional one-a-week schedule, because the season would have taken a critical beating on the second and third episodes its reputation might not have recovered from. But it's worth remembering that just because you can watch all the episodes in one sitting doesn't mean you should -- I spread them out over four nights and I still feel like I rushed it.

One last note: Some of the actors from this show have had a hard time finding good projects since it was initially cancelled, probably because it's hard to see Will Arnett as anyone but GOB and it's hard to see Tony Hale as anyone but Buster and so on. This new season is going to compound that problem, because while Tony Hale has been great on Veep and Arnett has been great on 30 Rock, neither of them is remotely as good anywhere else as they are with the Bluth family. So for the sake of their careers, I hope there is a fifth season, and a sixth. (I am puzzled by Hurwitz's often-stated desire to turn this thing into a movie, though. Each of these episodes is 50% longer than they were on Fox and the initial order for 10 episodes swelled to 15 as he grappled to fit in all the story he wanted, so how is he going to fit everything he wants to do into a 100-minute movie?)

If you are one of the many people out there complaining that this new season isn't good enough, try to remember that your favorite TV comedy came back from the dead, seven years after it was cancelled. That is UNPRECEDENTED. Even if the first two seasons were a 10 and this new one is a 6, to complain about it is insane, and speaks to a level of entitlement that would make the Bluths proud.

p.s. i have sifulus

Friday, May 17, 2013

I Don't Watch American Idol But I Know How To Fix It

Lead us back to glory! 

Big news last week: Randy Jackson, the last man standing from the original judges' panel on American Idol, has finally tendered his resignation from the show, so with last night's announcement that Candice Glover is the new American Idol and will (probably not) rule over us all from the top of the pop charts for eternity, Randy is no longer in it to win it, dawg.

It is a sign of American Idol's waning cultural moment that this is probably the first you've heard that Randy is leaving the show. Remember the first few years it was on? Remember when adults and heterosexuals watched it? Remember what a meal the media made of rumors that Paula Abdul might be leaving? It was bigger news than when Ted Kennedy died. Remember when Kelly Clarkson won? It was on the front page of the New York Times. If you wanted to read about last night's finale, you'd have to go below the fold -- in the Entertainment section -- on Google News, and even then the stories are all about Mariah Carey and Jennifer Lopez, not bright-eyed Candice Glover. Maybe it's because the show is old hat, maybe because it's used up all the undiscovered young singers, maybe it's just because people like The Voice better, but American Idol is in a severe tailspin -- I think it may even have sacrificed its core audience of catty queens at the altar of 13-year-old girls.

The news of Randy's departure, soon followed by word that Nicki Minaj was also quitting, came on the heels of rumors that Fox was going to make some drastic changes to the show, which, despite still earning numbers NBC would gladly make Jay Leno kill and eat a toddler for, drew its lowest ratings ever this year. Word is that they planned to fire Jackson, Minaj and the other judges -- Mariah Carey and Keith Urban -- and start season 13 with a whole new panel.

J.Lo proving she can make literally any outfit look good

But even I could still be drawn in by compelling judges -- by experienced, knowledgeable musicians who can articulate where a performer is falling short and how they might make it better. The kids (and by 'kids' I mean the contestants) learn, the audience learns, hopefully the kids improve, the competition tightens, the show gets more interesting, the ratings go back to Cheers finale territory, everybody wins.

Even in its early seasons, the show left a lot to be desired in this category. To be a good American Idol judge -- that is, someone who dispenses singing advice on national television compellingly enough to get people to watch -- you need a) something to say, b) the ability to say it, and c) the cred to make people listen. Admittedly, Simon Cowell had all three of these qualities: he had a strong opinion about every singer, he articulated it clearly, and his career as a producer of pop music (even though no one had ever heard of him), paired with his dyspeptic delivery, gave him the gravitas to make people listen.

But other than Simon, I can't think of a single past judge that could check more than two of those boxes. Paula Abdul had a successful music career, but a very strange one based more on her dance background than on her thin, squeaky voice. She never had anything to say, and by the end of her run she was too zonked on painkillers to even say it. J.Lo had a very big career, and she looked amazing in HD, but she is a movie star who makes records on the side. Her voice isn't much better than Paula Abdul's. And, she seemed to be allergic to giving the kids anything other than positive feedback. Ellen Degeneres is capable of speaking, but obviously is not a musician and thus has no cred, no matter what she says; Steven Tyler has more cred than everyone else on the show put together, but didn't have anything to say except increasingly creepy leers at the young female contestants; Mariah Carey has amazing pipes and a huge career but nothing to say; Randy Jackson had a big career as a producer but only seems to have five phrases in his vocabulary, which he cycles through like a doll with a pull-string.

This year Nicki Minaj, currently in charge of America's dance floors with her blend of solid songwriting, pop chops, horrifyingly filthy lyrics, and (arguably) the best rap flow in the game joined the panel, and was by far the most interesting judge the show has had. But her drag-queen-from-Venus routine, which includes slipping in and out of totally affected accents, an arsenal of cartoonishly huge eye rolls and facial expressions, and a variety of multicolored wigs seems to have undermined the fact that she has been the first judge to combine the unvarnished criticism Simon used to provide with the interest and empathy for the kids that all the other judges provide -- she announced the other day she also won't be returning, ahead of word that she wouldn't be invited back next season because middle America doesn't like her. (I admit, Nicki is the very definition of the term "acquired taste," but even I have come around on her to some extent.)

So that adds a fourth requirement: it has to be someone America can, if not relate to, not be afraid of. Fortunately, this is not exactly the hardest problem to solve. I solved the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I can solve this. So here it is: They don't need four judges. They don't even need three. One man can stop American Idol's slide into cultural irrelevance, and that man is Elton John.

Every aspect of American Idol should be torn down and rebuilt around that commercial. Elton should sit alone on a giant throne, in a puffy King suit, waving a bejeweled scepter with a golden cock on the end of it, passing super-bitchy judgment on everything in his domain.
They should make the contestants
wear Elton's stage outfits
Cred? Sir Elton has cred to burn, the most successful singer-songwriter of the '70s, with about 500 hits that he wrote and sang himself. He's a great singer, a great piano player, a great songwriter, and such a good performer he figured out a way to turn sitting at a piano into a stadium-worthy spectacle. Does he have something to say? DOES HE HAVE SOMETHING TO SAY? If there's ever been a celebrity not afraid to talk shit about other celebrities, or politicians, or the Oscars, or anything at all that comes across his field of vision, that celebrity is Elton John. (His rivalry with Madonna is my favorite, but by no means the only example.)
There have been rumors that Idol's producers have approached Elton before, and that he turned them down. That's just because they didn't offer him enough money to sit at a table with a couple of other has-beens, thus amplifying his own has-been status. But if you make him the only judge, sitting alone on his giant bejeweled throne petting a well-oiled Scandinavian ectomorph while another feeds him caviar off of a platinum coke spoon and a third constantly offers him a selection of $10,000 sunglasses to switch to, you solve both problems at once: by clearing the on-camera payroll they would be able to pay him enough to consider the job, and getting rid of the three-judge system would give him the status he'd need to take it.
An Elton John-led American Idol would have everything: musical insight, empathy with the (talented) kids, and most importantly, cutting, bitchy remarks from the King of Catty Queens. He would make Simon Cowell look like Paula Abdul. The interplay between Elton and Ryan Seacrest alone would be enough to make me tune in.
ELTON: I was asleep before the end of the first verse. I hate this song to begin with, Diane Warren is a hack, but her dog could sing it better than you just did. And what are those shoes? You oughtn't wear an open toe, darling. I can see your hooves.
SEACREST: We'll be back right after this!
ELTON: I wasn't finished.
SEACREST: We're out of time, Sir Elton. I don't make the rules.
ELTON: Of course you don't. I do. I tell you when it's time for a commercial break. Fucking unbelievable! Go back to shaving your chest, you talentless little twink. I had three like you for lunch today, and it's getting close to dinnertime. I'd say go fuck yourself but I'm not sure you've got the equipment. Do they sell that suit in men's sizes?
SEACREST: Back with more right after this!
ELTON: Call my agent, I'm quitting the show. This is a disaster.
… followed by a 40-minute commercial break while producers try to coax Elton back out of his limo. (His limo has a camera in it, of course, so Elton's 40-minute discourse to his assistant about everything wrong with Seacrest, the show, craft services, the 405, his other assistant, and America itself will be part of the broadcast.)
I know 13-year-old girls are this show's bread and butter, but there's only so much babysitting money to go around -- this thing needs to hit the 18-to-49s and hit 'em hard. An Elton John American Idol (or even and Elton John presents American Idol with Elton John) would do exactly that by delivering 100% of the catty queens in America, plus all the people who understand that watching catty queens watch other catty queens on television is just about the most fun you can have with the TV on. Take the ratings boost Howard Stern gave America's Got Talent and quadruple it, that's what an Elton John American Idol would deliver.  President Lyndon Johnson once said, "if we've lost Walter Cronkite, we've lost the country." This is the exact same situation, except instead of a Vietnam war policy it's a televised singing competition, and instead of losing Walter Cronkite, you've lost the catty queens. Get them back on board and the rest of the country will follow! Make Elton John the majority stockholder in the Fox Broadcasting Corporation if you have to, but get him on board!
And if he won't do it, make the exact same offer to George Michael. If he says no, call Cher.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Michael Jackson's New Accuser and Michael Jackson's Awful Family

On the day that he died in 2009, though his family and friends (if he had any real friends) and his army of lawyers and accountants (he definitely had those) were surely bereaved and numb with grief, there must have been some small part of them that was a little relieved that Michael Jackson's death would mean the end of the horrifying allegations of child molestation that started in 1993 and persisted through two trials, one ending in acquittal and the other ending with a $20 million out-of-court settlement, that ruined the reputation of the world's biggest celebrity and has hung over the family name like a cloud of tear gas.

But no, it seems that even in the grave, the self-appointed King of Pop cannot escape accusations of loving little boys, because this week Wade Robson, a judge on Fox's So You Think You Can Dance and a successful choreographer with a bunch of Britney Spears and N'Sync videos to his credit, filed suit against Jackson's estate, alleging repeated molestation from the time Robson was 7 till he was 14.

What's interesting about this new accusation is that Robson, both a frequent guest at the Neverland Ranch through the '90s and the only choreographer in the world named "Wade," was an outspoken defender of Jackson's during his 2005 trial. One of Jackson's housekeepers had testified to having seen Jackson sharing his bed and showering with Robson (and Macaulay Culkin, and some other kids), and Wade, his mother, and his sister all took the stand to deny it and to proclaim Jackson's innocence and goodness of heart and world-changing generosity of spirit like everyone who's really drunk the MJ Kool-Aid does.

So why is he changing his tune now? Maybe the fact that Jackson is no longer around to defend himself presents an opportunity to cash in that Mr. Robson feels he can't pass up. Maybe he just recently recovered all these (presumably) unpleasant memories in a particularly fruitful regression therapy session.

Jackson's family is vehemently and predictably going with the former: that he's on the record denying anything inappropriate with Jackson and that changing his story now is a transparent cash grab. And it's certainly possible that that's true. With all the bad press Jackson has had in this area, it's a wonder more ex-kids haven't come out of the woodwork to show us on the doll where MJ touched them, truth be damned, to try and get paid.

But I tend to doubt it in Wade's case, even with his past statements on the record, for a few reasons:

I mean come on, you can see his point
While Wade Robson, who I never heard of before this week, is hardly a household name and almost certainly does not possess the wealth that might allow him to, I don't know, have a giraffe or ferris wheel at his house, he is far from destitute -- he's the Randy Jackson of dancing's answer to American Idol. He's gainfully employed and semi-famous, and while like all of us he would probably not turn down private petting zoo money, it's also not fair to say he "needs the money."

And if he were somehow proven to be lying, think what that would do to his career: nobody would want to work with him if they thought him likely to slander their name -- possibly posthumously, possibly with the worst possible slander -- once the working relationship ended.

The working relationship, by the way, sheds some light on why he would have defended Jackson in court only to change his story years later. This guy was 7 when he met MJ, and whatever they might have gotten up to once the Jesus Juice started flowing, he also at least partially owes his career to him: he appeared as a dancer in three of Jackson's videos before his twelfth birthday, and landed his first choreography gig at 14. It's not difficult to imagine that the typical embarrassment and Stockholm Syndrome that some victims of child sexual abuse suffer would be exponentially amplified by one's abuser being a) the most famous human being on Planet Earth and b) the person standing at the pinnacle of one's chosen profession and c) your personal idol who d) has a ferris wheel at his house. If Robson is telling the truth, he must have a very knotty tangle of emotions in there.

Also, even though this guy is semi-famous in his field, he's certainly not famous famous -- but there are probably more people Googling "Wade Robson" this week than ever before. Who would want to be famous for being serviced by Michael Jackson, particularly if you're in show business anyway? The name of MJ's 1993 accuser eventually got out, but since the guy grew up to be a tax attorney or something unglamorous, it didn't stay famous. Wade Robson is on TV every week judging people's dance moves -- I have a hard time believing he would want the audience at home reminding each other that he got diddled by the King Of Pop every time he tried to critique someone's execution of a Jazz dance routine, unless it's true.

And, starting from the deficit of having made those statements defending Jackson, dude must have some serious evidence to back up his claim, because as we've seen, "he said/he said" doesn't work when your legal payroll is in the tens of millions. He's probably got letters, photos, maybe even some blue pajamas he's been hiding.

When I saw this photo in LIFE magazine in
1997 I pretty much made up my mind. Yeah. 
The Jacksons, of course, have circled the wagons and are calling Robson's case "outrageous and pathetic." The way they see it, poor Michael has been suffering baseless slander for 20 years now and even death has not brought him any rest. (The Jacksons' ability to rationalize and ignore face-slappingly clear evidence that Michael carried on, at best, wildly inappropriate relationships with children could and should be the basis of an extensive psychological study.) How dare these vultures make such baseless allegations about their poor fallen angel? Scum like Wade Robson just sees deep pockets and says whatever they have to say to wet their beak, to steal someone else's hard-earned fortune, they say to each other in his 2,500 square foot dining room.

Interesting, then, that only a few days before Robson filed his claim, the Jacksons filed a lawsuit against AEG Live, the company that promoted Michael's aborted (because of his death) "This Is It" tour, seeking to hold the company liable for wrongful death and asking for $40 billion (that's Billion, with a B, as in Forty times a Thousand times a Million) in damages.

To put that number in perspective, Bill Gates is worth $67 billion; Michael Jackson was worth $600 million at the time of his death. So I guess the Jacksons are suggesting that Michael's "This Is It" tour was going to multiply his net worth 66 times over? I'm sure it would have been a big success, but his biggest previous tour, the 1996 "HIStory" outing, grossed $165 million. The biggest tour of all time was U2's 2009 "360" tour, which took in $736 million. So let's be super generous and assume Michael would have outgrossed U2 the same year with, let's say $800 million. You'd still have to multiply that by 50 to get to $40 billion. I think we can agree that's an unrealistic number, no matter how hard you clap for Tinkerbell.

Let's not forget who we're talking about here.
 Nice wig/eyebrows/eyelashes/eyeliner/nosejob/
chinjob/cheekjob/skinjob/lipstick/matte coat/
powder coat/brooch/Willy Wonka suit there guy

Now wait a second, you're probably asking: didn't Michael Jackson OD on a sedative? Didn't he beg his doctor for said sedative? How could his tour promoter possibly be held liable for that? Wasn't his doctor, Conrad Murray, already convicted of manslaughter? Yes, and yes. Did AEG Live hire Dr. Murray? No they did not -- as painstakingly detailed in Murray's trial, Jackson met him in Las Vegas when he treated one of Jackson's kids. MJ took a liking to him, and put him on a $150,000-a-month (ONE HUNDRED FIFTY THOUSAND DOLLARS PER THIRTY DAYS) salary to be his personal physician/candyman.

How many companies out there would foot that bill? Not even Jamie Dimon or that dude from "The Queen of Versailles" would sign off on that. I am certain that there is an ample paper trail detailing exactly how not on board AEG is with paying that kind of cash to MJ's doctor and explicitly stating that he's taken that expense on his own. Maybe he got them to kick in ten grand a month or something -- you know, the reasonable going rate for doctors to the stars -- but there's no way the promoter can be held liable for the doctor Michael Jackson hired giving him something Michael Jackson begged for, and the case will be laughed out of court immediately.

So why would the Jacksons file such an obviously unwinnable claim? Here's why: at the time of his death, Michael was $400 million in debt, was facing foreclosure on his ranch, and was borrowing hundreds of millions to keep his cash flow going. Needless to say, his finances were (and are) a mess of epic proportions, and the rest of his family has, instead of living on inheritance in the lifestyle to which they've become accustomed, has inherited his debt and is looking for a way out. Dr. Murray didn't have anywhere near the assets to shore them up, so they went looking for some deep pockets and said whatever they have to say to wet their beak and steal someone else's hard-earned fortune. And let's be real, AEG is probably not even worth $40 billion. Maybe they should have aimed a little lower, like $2 billion, or two-and-a-half times what MJ would have earned on the tour if he'd lived. (One thing about the Jacksons: you can't say they do things halfway.)

Wade Robson is surely aware that the Jacksons are tapped out-- if he hadn't guessed it, I'm sure his lawyers told him about 1,200 times-- and there's no money to be had in the first place, so maybe (and try to stay with me here) it's about something other than money.

Let's not kid ourselves: Wade Robson never said anything, and in fact probably even lied about what happened between him and Michael because he loved him. He was the world's greatest singer. The world's greatest dancer. The world's nicest guy. A guy with a giraffe in his back yard. A guy who shared his outsize interest in something probably not that many people in his life were into. A guy who gave him a career pursuing that interest. He probably didn't want to do anything to hurt Michael while Michael was alive.

But now Michael's not alive, and maybe some very icky feelings are finally coming to the surface, and maybe he's thinking about the fact that there are somewhere between a dozen and a hundred other guys out there who also loved Michael and stayed quiet for him out of love and out of fear and maybe he's thinking that if someone semifamous with no obvious reason (like being really poor) to make this accusation goes ahead and does it, maybe he can get the tap flowing for all the kids out there who didn't manage to parlay their abuse into a show business career. Maybe seeing Michael's family try and blame a fourth party for Michael's death signaled the final recognition that these people are in total denial about Poor Michael's faults, that no one is ever going to convince them that he fucked quite a lot of people up along the way, and the only hope of getting any kind of satisfaction for all those people is to do it himself.

Or maybe he's full of shit, I dunno.

Friday, May 3, 2013

What We Put Up With When We Put Up With Prince

Last week my Facebook news feed was overtaken by Prince. The little fella was going to be playing four shows at the teeny-tiny DNA Lounge in San Francisco, and since I used to live there and still have a lot of super-cool music-loving friends there, they went into a social-media frenzy, first debating if the $250 ticket price was worth it, then as the day drew near, scrambling to get some of those tickets they realized at the last minute they couldn't live without (No judgment, I would have probably done exactly the same thing), then excitedly anticipating the experience of seeing a universally adored, unquestionably virtuosic musician in such a small venue, then gushing about what an amazing show it was.

Amid all this excitement, I noticed the following exchange (names blurred on the way off chance they get mad at me):

The incident being referred to is when Prince played Late Night With Jimmy Fallon a couple of weeks ago and borrowed a guitar from "Captain" Kirk Douglas of Fallon's house band, The Roots. Then, to end the performance, he tossed the guitar straight up in the air and let it drop to the floor, breaking the headstock and ruining the valuable, rare 1961 Epiphone Crestwood. Adding insult to injury, Douglas good-naturedly asked Prince to sign the broken guitar, and Prince refused.

Informed of all this in that Facebook thread, my friend replied, "there's two sides to every story."

I don't mean to single this friend out, because we've all willingly put up with, rationalized, overlooked, and straight up denied Prince's increasingly outrageous crap for 30 years now. I would (and am about to) argue that Prince, more than any other artist, goes out of his way to alienate his fans, conducting himself with an arrogance and self-importance that suggests he believes he really is royalty, and not just a talented guy whose parents gave him a weird name. And we all just put up with it, justify it, wave it away, or look the other way because the guy is so insanely talented.

Is that Prince taking his bodyguard on stage
to accept a politically questionable award?
Yes, yes it is.
To that, I can attest firsthand. Near the end of my time in San Francisco, in the spring of 2001, I got a chance to see Prince perform an "Aftershow" (as in, a show after a sold-out show at the Oakland Coliseum) at the Fillmore Auditorium, capacity 1,100. At the time, I was not a big Prince fan, but he had recently changed his name back to Prince from the unpronounceable symbol (more on that in a moment), excitement was high, so I decided to fork over the shocking $50 for a ticket (at the time, all shows at the Fillmore were $15 or $20), stood in line for three hours before the show finally started at 3am and I was treated to probably the best show I've ever been to. People forget, because he's such a weirdo, that the dude is such a bitchin' guitar player it's not even funny. I was so far beyond entertained I happily forgot all about the long wait in the typically cold SF night and the (at the time) ridiculous ticket price. (Note: the show was bootlegged and you can download it here.)
But those inconveniences don't even move the needle when it comes to Prince's greatest acts of arrogance. The sentimental favorite, of course, is the night he attended a James Brown show with Michael Jackson; when James called Michael up to the stage, Michael busted a couple of moves and then urged James to call Prince up on stage as well. This being 1983, in the narrow post-Thriller, pre-Purple Rain window, James does not know who Prince is, but he obliges, and Prince responds by riding his bodyguard piggyback up to the stage, petulantly taking said stage like he owned it, doing nothing at all of consequence once on it, and then pulling a big piece of scenery down into the crowd while dismounting. (I wrote at much greater length about this incident, which you can watch on YouTube, right here. My favorite moment, possibly in the history of anything ever, is when Prince pulls his leather gloves off with his teeth and then tosses them into the crowd; a moment later, the gloves hit him in the chest.) 

Any discussion of Prince's way overblown ego begins with his name change. In 1993, bridling at Warner Bros. insistence on releasing his work at a far slower pace than he was generating it, he was desperate for a way to get out of his contract. Warner Bros. wanted to release an album every couple years or so, as had become the industry norm, the better to exploit every last potential single from a given record. Prince, who just wrote and recorded a song in the time it took you to read this sentence, wanted to release everything he recorded as he recorded it, which would have been something like a double album every ten days. 

I can kind of see Warners' point, particularly because the chaff-to-wheat ratio on Prince albums (1999 and Purple Rain excepted) is pretty high. For every amazing, iconic track on a Prince album (and there are so, so many), there are four or five boring, downtempo ballads. But that still doesn't make it right to legally prevent a prolific artist from being prolific.

The solution Prince came up with would have been absolute genius if he hadn't done it in such a colossally douchey fashion: he changed his name to, gave no indication of how one might say it out loud, and told Warners' execs, "you didn't sign, you signed Prince., is going to release whatever he wants on another label." 

We can agree that tactically, this move was on par with Patton taking Bastogne. But practically, it was unnecessarily pretentious by about 99 percent. A name change is a name change -- would this strategy have been any less effective if he had changed it to "The Kid" (his ridiculous character name in the Purple Rain movie) or "Shreddy McFunkbeat" or "Purple Nurple" or "Malcolm X-Ray" or whatever?

It's pronounced "doosh-bag"
Even worse, when someone in the music press tried to find a workaround -- there is nokey on most typewriters, which in 1993 had yet to be supplanted by computers (even with a 2013 computer, putting those goddamn little symbols into this blog took me an extra hour) -- and referred to him as "The Artist Formerly Known As Prince," the nameless little bastard complained. "I'm not the Artist Formerly Known as anything. Use my name," he sniffed, overlooking the fact that his new name was a little unwieldy, being unspeakable and untypable and all. Eventually, he consented to be called "The Artist," which is just the blowhardiest gust of hot air ever to come down Blowhard Mountain. From now on, just call me "The Writer," you guys. Have you met my wife, "The Teacher"? This is our son, "The Ruiner."
What were people calling him to his face during this period? "Artist, your pancakes are ready!" "What time does your flight get in, Artist?" "I really like the Artist's new high heels!" Anyway, one could make the argument (and I am about to) that all this stupid Puff Daddy-P. Diddy-Diddy-Doo Doo name changing can all be traced back to, so if you're annoyed that Snoop Dogg is now Snoop Lion or Ron Artest is now Metta World Peace or Chad Ochocinco is now Chad Johnson, you know who to blame.

I am never not going to love this album cover
The Artist is also one of those extra-special musicians who (through his management, of course) instructs all the employees at the venues he plays not to make eye contact with him or look at him. "Weird" Al Yankovic tells a story (I saw it once on "I Love The '80s" or something but can't find it on YouTube) about attending the 1985 Grammys and being sternly instructed, along with all the other famous musicians sitting near Prince, not to look at him.

And speaking of "Weird" Al, Prince is the one and only musician who's consistently refused to let him parody one of his songs. When you have less of a sense of humor about yourself than Kurt Cobain, who gladly let "Weird" Al parody "Smells Like Teen Spirit," it's time to reassess.

We overlook the overwhelming evidence of this man's douchebaggery because he's just so, so good. We all remember when he played the Super Bowl a few years ago, right? Until Beyonce decisively took the title a couple of months ago (and I say that as no big fan of Beyonce), Prince's was the best halftime show ever. He played "Purple Rain" in purple rain, for Chrissake.

But Prince doesn't want me to watch it on YouTube, or any other video containing any part of anything he does, unless he gets kissed in for a taste. In 2007 he sued YouTube, eBay, and bittorrent site The Pirate Bay for copyright infringement, in an attempt to (as he put it) "reclaim the Internet." (I guess he hasn't heard of Vimeo.) The Pirate Bay is a no-brainer, and YouTube makes sense I guess (although, he played mostly covers-- not his songs-- at the Super Bowl, and nobody paid to see that the first time, so what's the harm in seeing it again?), but eBay? Is he trying to stop people from selling their Prince albums? He got paid the first time they were sold. Taking things to a new height of ridiculousness, last month he filed a lawsuit against Vine -- the social media service where users post videos 6 seconds or shorter -- because he found a few videos of people lip-syncing to 6 seconds of "When Doves Cry." What. A. Dick.

That's the guitar he broke

Not only that, he keeps soaking his fans for membership in his exclusive online music clubs, and then shuts them down. In 2001 he started the NPG Music Club, promising exclusive downloadable content and priority seating at his concerts, for only a $100 lifetime membership. Then, in 2006, he shut the site down, emailing fans that the service had "gone as far as it can go." So it can't keep providing exclusive material and priority seating to the people who paid for it? Awesome!

Two subsequent official sites, and had a similar lifespan and demise, charging the many hardcore Prince fans who will pay anything to hear what he's up to a "lifetime membership" fee, then releasing very little material, confounding subscribers with a completely confusing, decidedly user-unfriendly design, and then shutting down altogether with no refund or explanation given. He's also declared the Internet "completely over" (I'd check my numbers on that, Prince) and refuses to sell any music through iTunes or any other digital music service, so if you want to hear the new Prince album, you've got to get in your car and go to a music store (if you can still find one) and buy a CD.

Prince hates you is what I'm saying.
<0> also have 2 speak out 4 the grammar nerds out there (and U know who U R) against Prince's ridiculous liner-note shorthand. It has 2 B the stupidest thing <0> have ever seen, and it started the destruction of our language that text messaging and Twitter have since accelerated (but most definitely did not invent). So in addition to all his other sins, Prince ruined the English language.
Don't get me wrong -- if Prince wanted to charge me and 150 other people $400 to see him play at Pianos (and he probably would charge me even if I was working that night), I would pay the money, I would wait all day in line, I would subscribe to his stupid website, I would refrain from looking him in the eye, I would lend him my favorite guitar if he asked for it, and I would be every bit as stoked about it as all my friends in California were last week. I'm just saying, let's not lose sight of the fact that this guy is only slightly to the left of Idi Amin and twice as arrogant. I dig his new Afro, though.